A Pint with the Professor: Intelligent Fiction

Intelligent Fiction

I enjoy speculative fiction stories of many types. One thing that helps me to enjoy a story the most is that it is written intelligently. If the inhabitants live in a time and place where water is scarce, I expect them to behave in such a way as to conserve and treasure water. If a person flagrantly wastes water, then I would expect for there to be some reasonable explanation as to why that is. I most enjoy a social structure and social mannerisms that make sense for that fictitious culture.

Stay with me on this one, but I love comedians because they are able to notice those things in everyday life that are much more funny than I gave them credit for when they happened to me. I am very amazed with how a comedian can take something so ordinary that I would have passed it over, and they can find the comedy in it.

Similarly, I love fiction writers who notice things about people, and they bring that into their characters. A co-worker recently asked me if I wanted an extra taco she ordered but was not going to eat. When I indicated I was not sure, she said then she might ask the only other male on the team if he would want it.

Researchers in social psychology have found that people are usually not aware of why they do many of the things that they do. They can often come up with a justification for it, but the justification usually is not derived until after the person has already exhibited the social behavior in question. People generally want to believe the best of themselves, it is a natural human tendency noticed since even the very first analysts began working with patients regarding their mental health. Therefore, even though we can often come up with a reason for why we did something that we did, that does not mean we understood the reason at the time.

Did you notice in the example above that the co-worker specifically went to the male staff to ask if they wanted food? Noticing things like that is one of the first steps to becoming an intelligent writer, in my opinion. Curiosity about why this is so, is also an important characteristic.

Psychologists often derive explanations for behaviors by looking at the utility of those behaviors. Evolutionary psychology is particularly useful when examining problems of this nature. Similar to general evolutionary theory, this theory posits that humans often behave in certain ways because there is some adaptive utility in doing so. Some might suggest that men are fed first because historically, they have been the protectors of the home. Therefore it would be important for family survival to have the males well fed and healthy. It could be because the male body structure tends to be larger, so we tend to need more calories just to keep our bodies going. It could just be an expression of patriarchy in our society. It might even be true that there is more than one reason.

If we were to sit and brainstorm together over a pint (or four), we could probably come up with many explanations to explain why men get the extra taco. As speculative fiction writers, however, we get to create those little social rules and come up with our own explanations. Intelligent observation can lead to intelligent writing, and to a speculative fiction world that seems plausible and immersive.

Heirs to Mars by Joseph Robert Lewis is a great example of an intelligent speculative fiction world. The story takes place in a future fictional world on an inhabited Mars. In this book, cloners are able to save the minds of people that they believe are worthy, and to place those minds in android bodies that mimic the people they are patterned after, once the person dies. The story in the book is largely the clash in cultures as human society attempts to catch up with the technology. I do recommend the book, I quite enjoyed it.

A Pint with the Professor is a (somewhat) weekly feature where I apply the things I know about psychology, sociology and other related disciplines to fiction. I love thoughtful fiction, and I love hearing from authors and writers of speculative fiction when they think deeply about their fictional worlds and the people and cultures in those worlds. I hope you enjoy reading these posts as much as I enjoy putting them together. 

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6 comments

  1. Scribbler

    Wonderful post! As a writer, I know I need to learn how to better connect with my characters. I usually find myself justifying an action rather than giving its cause. Understanding them and their motivations is definitely a step towards success. Thanks for the post. I will aim to engage in intelligent fiction from this point on!

  2. meagan mac

    Totally agree. The importance of noticing can’t be overstated. Of course, too much detail can be a problem, but that’s another issue. I started a dystopian story and finally had to stop because the “world-building” details became overwhelming. I’d rather focus on people and relationships, rather than wrap my brain around itself tracking on my made-up future world. Thanks for the post!

    • jrlambert

      Yes, I remember someone once saying, “stop creating and write.” So of course there is an end point. I am thinker though, so I like a well-thought out world. I love dystopian stories, I hope you get a chance to get back to it. 🙂

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